Israeli Lt. Col. Sarit Zehavi stood on the stage of the AIPAC policy conference in March and told 18,000 people that conflict with Lebanon is “not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.” Many Israeli officials have echoed the same sentiment in recent months as they have watched Iranian proxies dig-in in Syria and Hezbollah fighters return home from the Syrian civil war. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in January, “If a conflict does break out in the north, ‘boots on the ground’ remains an option. We won’t allow scenes like in 2006, where we saw citizens of Beirut on the beach while Israelis in Tel Aviv sat in shelters… If people in Tel Aviv will be in bomb shelters, all of Beirut will be in bomb shelters.”
The leaders of Hezbollah claimed they do not expect a conflict with Israel, but they are actively preparing for one if “Israel decides to carry out any foolish action.” Hezbollah makes it no secret that their objective is violence toward Israel and Jews generally. These statements are likely nothing more than saber-rattling since neither side currently wants a conflict. Propping up the Assad regime against attacks by the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian rebels has thinned Hezbollah’s ranks and war chest. After his last visit to the region, even Sen. Lindsey Graham seems to believe war is coming. Many Israelis regularly say their past wars in Lebanon are equivalent to what the Vietnam War was for Americans.
The narrative of inevitable conflict is dangerous, but it shows the status quo cannot be maintained. War in Lebanon could cause fighting as vicious as the Syrian Civil War and human suffering on the scale of Yemen. Iran would have another front in its ever-widening campaign to destabilize the region and increase its influence in Lebanon, as they have done in Syria.
Preventing war in Lebanon is in Israel’s interest, as the IDF would have to root Hezbollah out of civilian-dense areas while the world watches. The next war would likely not end with Israel conducting precision strikes against Hezbollah. With Iranian proxies in Syria bordering Israel near the Golan Heights, Hamas’ growing desperation, and an estimated 100,000 rockets pointed at Israel from Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Lebanon, the next war could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israeli civilians and threaten one of the region’s last bastions of Christianity.
Lebanon’s multi-confessional system is not perfect, but it allows an equal sharing of power that has kept the peace between various religious sects. Shia make up 27 percent of the population. Not all of them vote for Hezbollah, but the organization’s arsenal has allowed it to extend its influence through alliances with non-Shia blocs. The country’s other sects—40 percent of Lebanese are Christian and 27 percent are Sunni—are weak partially because both international support for them and the non-sectarian Lebanese Armed Forces, which could counterbalance Hezbollah, are weak.
The United States has a critical interest in preventing conflict and avoiding another refugee crisis, especially since Lebanon already has 2 million Syrian refugees. Diagnosing the problem is only the first step. Finding a path to peace on the Israel-Lebanon border is more difficult, but not impossible. That path inevitably involves restoring Lebanon’s stability.
Although not perfect, the US must engage with the legitimate Lebanese government to curb the Iran’s toxic influence and cut off Hezbollah’s support, which has allowed it to challenge Beirut’s authority. Congress and the Trump administration should pursue a positive future for Lebanon, free of Hezbollah and Iranian influence.
Most issues jeopardizing Lebanon’s stability have root causes beyond its borders, creating significant challenges for US foreign policy. Hezbollah’s rise would not be possible without backing from Iran, which has regional ambitions. Instability in Syria has led to a refugee crisis that has overloaded Lebanon’s infrastructure. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rivalry threatens to turn Lebanon into another battleground for their proxy war. Despite these challenges, there are five policy areas the US can act upon now to help promote a stable and prosperous Lebanon.
First, the US should cut off Hezbollah’s lifeline of foreign weapons and funding, which has so far been a burden Israel has shouldered to prevent Iran from establishing a bigger footprint in Lebanon.
Second, more American military advisors and aid can strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces and ensure they remain separate from Hezbollah and provide a counterbalance to Iran’s proxy.
Third, implementing key infrastructure projects would bolster the government’s credibility. Power outages have plagued Lebanon since its civil war that ended in 1990, and the government estimates that, in order to have functioning power 24 hours a day, it needs $5-6 billion, which the US could help provide through private sector partnerships.
Fourth, the US should continue to mediate a dispute between Israel and Lebanon over sub-sea gas fields. Block 9, as well as three other blocks, border Israeli territorial waters and are claimed by both countries. The acting US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield, has been shuttling back and forth between Israel and Lebanon in a bid to resolve the disputes, and these efforts should continue until an agreement is found between both sides.
Finally, the US can demand the closure of Iranian-sponsored missile factories in Lebanon and work with the government to ensure they do not become a reality. If not, Israel will be forced to attack Lebanon, which could trigger a conflict.
These policies will not disarm Hezbollah tomorrow, but they can stave off Lebanon falling completely under the sway of Iran or stumbling into a devastating war with Israel. In addition to them, the US also needs a long-term strategy to counter Iran to prevent it from controlling the region through proxies. Without these types of strategies and policies, Israel may act against Lebanon, as IDF General Yadlin recently warned, “This time, [Israel] will not differentiate between Hezbollah and Lebanon.” If war occurs, the embattled Christians of Lebanon will be the ones who suffer the most in what would be yet another front of Iran’s war for regional control.
We cannot sit by and accept the narrative of inevitable conflict. In the long-term, an Isreal-Lebanon war would only empower Iran’s proxy by creating a crisis of legitimacy which it would use to expand its influence. War would be costly at a time when the region seems entrenched in other costly wars in Syria and Yemen. The result for Israel would be an unstable northern border, with little buffer between the chaos in Syria and Israeli population centers in the north. Unless Israel and the United States have a long-term plan for Lebanese stability, war with Hezbollah will do little for Israel’s security situation.
Peter Burns (@peterburns_1861) is a government relations and policy associate at In Defense of Christians. Burns is a Philos Fellow and an alumnus of America’s Future Foundation’s Writing Fellowship.
Photo Credit: The entire Paratroopers Brigade participated in a large-scale exercise on land and in the air, simulating combat scenarios in desert and urban warfare. January 28, 2018. Photo by Cpl. Yoav Pinus, IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, via Flickr.